“There is nothing as difficult and as expensive, but also nothing as futile, as trying to keep a corpse from stinking.”Peter F. Drucker
In a nursing home, in Providence, Rhode Island, lives a cat named Oscar. He has been living in Steere House nursing centre since he was a young kitten after staff members adopted him from a nearby animal shelter. Sensing when a patient is on the verge of death, Oscar enters the room, jumps onto the bed next to the patient, and begins to purr. To date, Oscar has “presided over” the deaths of more than 25 residents in the nursing centre.
Coincidence? Maybe. Superstition? Perhaps. Possible? Yes, and here is how.
Although the story sounds far-fetched, social animals can sense a pheromone called “necromone.” Necromones are fatty acids in insects associated with decomposition and are a strong signal for members of the same species to stay away—possibly to protect others from catching a contagion. Like animals, humans have putrefaction volatiles that act as necromones. This ability to sense death, decomposition or disease is important, it serves the survival of a species. This Thursday Thought poses the question, can you sense when an organisation is dying? For regular readers, you know the answer is a resounding yes, but let’s elaborate.
Just as organisms emit necromones to communicate decay, organisations emanate signals to communicate decline. Any organism interested in long term survival would not dare to disregard such signals. However, organisational leaders often turn a blind eye to crystal-clear signals that the end is near. Instead of taking necessary action, they choose to embalm the rotting corporate body to keep it from stinking. As Drucker recognised, this is an expensive choice, not just financially, but it ultimately costs the organisation it’s survival.
When a corporate entrepreneur (like Oscar the cat above) detects organisational necromones, what usually happens? In some cases, they are afforded a respectful audience to make their case. “Finally”, they believe, “senior leadership is acknowledging their concerns and paying heed to their suggestions”. These corporate cats walk away believing the organisation will deal with the dying organisation. Often such meetings are a decoy, a delay tactic. Leadership will either silence the gainsayer by assigning them to some non-sensical project to frustrate them, some dead-end task equivalent to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic or they will find a way to quietly exit the whistleblower.
Here is the thing, everything has a lifespan, everything has an expiry date. The key to staying alive is reinvention. It is natural for a corpse to rot, but for every death, there is also a birth. At the time of writing this article, there were 54,000 deaths in the world, but 128,900 children also began their lives (https://www.worldometers.info). As Picasso observed, “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” So, it is ok for the corpse to stink and you are perfectly entitled to prolong the mourning period, but you need to invest in a future incarnation.
Netflix provides a great example of an organisation that maintains a corpse and quite rightly as discussed with the brilliant Rita McGrath on The Innovation Show. For those of us who recall, Netflix started life as a DVD mail business. It had fulfilment centres and stock all over the USA. The company had a logistics system and organisational capacity to excel at such an offering. However, CEO Reed Hastings was preparing a new incarnation. He knew where the web was headed to faster and faster connectivity and increasing consumption of online entertainment. Today, the company boasts X customers in X countries. So what of the remains of the previous business, the hard copy DVD business?
That business still exists as a rotting corpse business. It is called DVD.com and delivers almost $300 million in 2019 according to a recent SEC filing, so why would you bury the corpse when it is still delivering revenues? My mind conjures images of the goose that lays the golden eggs meets the sloth guy from the movie Se7en, kept alive on a cocktail of vitamins and stimulants as it slowly rots away. The key for Netflix was to run the rotting organism for efficiency and operational excellence, squeezing every penny from the operation while reinvesting revenues in the future businesses, future golden geese. Netflix had built all that capability and it is still useful, so why just dump it? As I highlight in my book, “Undisruptable” there is always a return on capability and there are always assets in the ashes.
So, yes Mr. Drucker, I agree we should not keep a corpse from stinking if that is our only organisational activity, but if it is still useful and ethical and if we are propagating other potential futures, then let’s embalm this bad boy.
One last thought, are you keeping your career from stinking, are you ignoring the necromones?
THANKS FOR READING
Undisruptable is now available on Kindle and Hardback
It includes a Foreword from Visa founder and CEO Emeritus Dee Hock.
“Aidan McCullen has lived a fascinating life of major change. In his book, ‘Undisruptable’; he brings us a method for making sense of the external world, and an accessible and visual approach to letting go of the past, and welcoming the future with a mindset of permanent reinvention. It is a timely, thoughtful book, well worth reading.”Dee Hock
“The Permanent Reinvention” virtual workshop is also available, based on the book,
It is a workshop that explores the cognitive traps that prevent us from making our best decisions in business and every other aspect of life.
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